So off to the Tory Party conference. And this year their leaders may be more supercilious, sneering, smug and swaggering than usual: success always brings out the worst in right-wing politicians. I walk among them, smile often, speak properly, argue nicely, yet feel like an alien. I admire some individual Tories – a couple are good mates – but contemporary Conservatism is cold, base and dangerous.
The party is loaded, most of the press is on side and the BBC has been subdued. Slick presentation, propaganda and incessant spin make their own realities. At the conference there will be much speechifying about how the nation, the NHS, the young and old, Army and economy are safer under this party. Bosoms and chests will heave, faces will flush with pride.
But look at what lies beneath and you will find double dealing, iniquity, and the planned demolition of institutions. Whitehall apparently “leaned on” the health service regulator Monitor (according to a senior figure there), in order that a damaging report which showed the NHS moving towards a £2 billion deficit was held back. Sources claim the Government did not want these grave numbers to spoil the fizzy conference. Gavin Francis, a friend, is a part-time GP in Edinburgh and author of Adventures In Human Being. In a corrosive essay, he describes the way profitable private health care companies dump patients on the NHS when it suits them: “...[the companies] sell an image of efficiency and modernity that in truth they have little claim on, because their success is predicated on a robust NHS.” This mop-up service is free for the companies. Furthermore – and partly as a result of the Party’s new plans for pay cuts to junior doctors – GPs, surgeons, nurses and midwives are leaving, or preparing to leave, either the country or the profession. This is a brain drain we simply can’t afford, and this is how the Tories are bleeding the NHS to death – slowly and quietly.
Meanwhile, George Osborne rejected the tobacco levy because he did not want to upset the tobacco companies which argued that charges would affect their contribution to the UK’s economic recovery. Doctors, cancer experts and ASH (the anti-smoking charity) pushed for the tariff but were rebuffed. A Treasury spokesman said: “Any levy would complicate the tax system, impose an administrative burden on business and create uncertainty for business and consumers.” Well, we can’t have that, can we?
And the state of our law courts? Defence in the criminal justice system is now a rich person’s privilege. Mike Hough, professor of criminal policy at Birkbeck School of Law, warns that new court charges are unjust. Those who can’t afford to pay between £150 to £1,000 cannot not get a fair trial. Charges are not means tested or remitted. Innocent men and women are thus forced to plead guilty. Fifty magistrates have resigned, including Nigel Allcoat, a respected magistrate for 16 years. He tried to pay charges for a destitute asylum seeker brought to court. For this simple, humanitarian act he was suspended and investigated by the Lord Chancellor’s office. In our state, kindness is weakness, legitimate objections an affront to power.
While we are on asylum-seekers and refugees, let’s look into the places these people are incarcerated. Antony Loewenstein’s Disaster Capitalism exposes the way profits are extracted from desperation. Since 2012, Serco and G4S have become custodians of vulnerable men, women and children. Here is what the author witnessed at a centre in Wakefield: “The rooms were home to rats and cockroaches. Pregnant women were placed in poor housing with steep stairs. Food poisoning was common. Some private contractors did not pay council fees, and tenants’ heating and electricity had been disconnected.” The hellish place is called Angel Lodge. But there are good returns in this developing market. And for “the ordinary people” among us, the living wage promise by the PM is as credible as his commitment to help refugees. He doesn’t mean it, and is only placating current public sentiments. The dispossessed and low paid have no place in Toryland. Poverty is fecklessness. Those who commit suicide after losing benefits are worthless. Free lunches for schoolchildren were Clegg’s soppy idea which must be taken off the table.
And the last indictment is possibly the worst. Sir Simon McDonald, the most senior Foreign Office official has admitted that “the prosperity agenda” is now the priority, and that human rights matter a good deal less than in the past, when William Hague was Secretary of State. That means the Saudis become ever closer allies, and China our dearest trading partner.
We have become one of the most unethical nations in the West. And cheery Dave still insists on proclaiming to the world that Britain is great and uniquely honourable. The masterful spin doctor is described as a “decent man” by many, even those who disagree strongly with his policies. One of them is an Oxford don who has emailed me several times to share his anguish about the UK response to the Syrian crisis. He can’t believe the virtuous student he knew has turned so ruthless. Perhaps Cameron could dupe those around him even back then. When I talked with him a few years back, I too was taken by his openness and liberal mind. Now all I see is cynicism and manipulation. Cameron has led the Tories further to the right than Thatcher did. The UK now is a big business, avarice its fundamentalist religion.
They will not welcome this column, or me, in Manchester today. I’ll survive. But I fear the British values of fairness, justice and humanitarianism will not fare so well under this authoritarian, unaccountable government, and its slippery leader.